How to Let Go of Wanting to Look Young

No matter who you are or how much money you throw at a plastic surgeon, you will age. What you can control? How you do it: in denial—or with dignity. Psychologist Vivian Diller lays out a plan for those who choose the latter

By Emily Listfield
vivian diller
Vivian Diller
Photograph: Chris Fanning

There’s an uh-oh moment in every woman’s life, whether at the first gray hair or the first fine line, when we realize that the first blush of youth is gone. Yes, we can panic (and pluck). But the key to weathering this transition with aplomb, says Vivian Diller, PhD, author of Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change,is to redefine how we think about beauty. “Our generation owe it to ourselves to find another way to feel beautiful rather than trying to turn back the clock,” she says. Here, Diller, 58, a former ballet dancer and model who has decided to age without significant nipping or tucking, explains how a change in attitude can help us regain confidence and even improve our looks.

Why are the most confident women—even those who never cared much about their appearance—thrown when they start to see changes in their looks?
We have an attachment to the image we see in the mirror, and barring illness or major weight fluctuations, that image remains much the same in your twenties and thirties. But when it begins to change, it doesn’t just affect your looks; it affects your identity. These changes reach down to a deeper place: what your future holds, who you are as a woman.

So this is about more than just looks?
Yes. Most of us grew up assuming that assets other than our appearance—education, experience, achievements—would be in the forefront of our identity.Yet at some point in our thirties, forties or fifties, depending on the woman, we hear another message: that if you don’t take care of your looks, you will disappear. You’ll lose your job. You’ll lose your husband. That’s why it’s important to ask yourself what you are feeling when you have that first uh-oh moment. It can bring about panic, as if you’re losing control. Some women feel they must do something, to “fix it.” Others become apathetic.

Why is it a mistake to think aging is something we can fix?
If we look at aging as an illness or as something un-natural, it can lead to rash decisions. After other losses, people may renovate houses.Unfortunately, with the loss of looks, some people renovate their faces. But no matter what you do, your youth is something you have to let go of. And to let go, you have to let yourself feel sad about the loss.

Letting go of youth—that’s hard to do in our culture.
You can’t change society’s attitude, but you can change your own. To start, you have to leave behind the youthful image we associate with beauty. Once you have your uh-oh -moment—in your forties or fifties or sometimes even in your thirties—you have to begin a mourning process as you let go of that aspect of yourself. If you don’t go through that, you can’t open up to the possibilities of what you can become. Remember, we’re not just talking about the next 20 years anymore; we’re talking about the next 40.

Your own uh-oh moment came early—when you were a twenty-something dancer.
Yes. So much of my self-esteem was connected to being a ballet dancer, and then I injured myself. I was just 21 when I realizedI was going to lose my spot to someone younger, healthier. I felt scared at first; if I wasn’t a dancer anymore, I didn’t know who I was. So I had to broaden my self-esteem, basing it on more than just looks and youth. I had to find something I could get better at as I got older. The process I went through is very similar to what women go through in midlife as their looks begin to change. I ended up going back to school and becoming a psychologist because I wanted to help others going through similar situations.

First Published January 3, 2012

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piggy sue02.13.2012

This was an interesting story & I felt it was directed at just me. I mourn my youth nearly everyday. I can't do anything to change the years, but I still find myself thinking to recapture something of that era. It seems I'm fighting with my inner self. I think I look age appropriate but I don't really know what that means when I don't feel the 57 years my body is reflecting..........I have a picture of myself 10 years ago & wonder why I can't still fix my hair that way, or lose weight like I used to could do. I walk myself to death on the treadmill & can not loose an ounce! I probably would go the surgery route if I could afford it, but then in 10 more years what will I do when it comes down again with gravity.... my mother is 82 years old & doesn't look it either. Ironically, she feels the same way I do. She has never related to people her age, doesn't fit in the "mall walking" crowd, will NOT wear tennis shoes for walking because it makes her look old. I feel I'm wasting my efforts on feeling this way. I just can't get past it. I see the ads for clothes I used to could wear, the young women they are targeted at, and feel I'm being left out of that.

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